From my notebook, Prado Museum, Madrid, Tues 23rd May, 2017.
‘In an exquisite arrangement for an emotionally draining painting, the four figures are linked in a composition that restlessly carries the gaze around it. A woman to the left holds a pose straight out of a Martha Graham ballet, her elbows raised and her fingers interlocked. Hers is an oddly large face, the most prominent of the three mourners, and however I view the painting, she’s always the starting point. The problem is that she’s a tad too conventionally pretty, and as such very nearly undermines everything with her sweetness. In contrast the Virgin and St John evidence palpable grief, their faces dully anguished, their bodies broken, bowed and frozen, as though they will never recover from the horror.
Then there’s the brutalised figure of Christ, sallow, shadowed and unmistakably dead. His high forehead and features are taut, as though the flesh has shrunk back to cleave even more closely to the skull. His joints are pronounced, ribcage visible and collar-bones sharp. The face is ageless, simultaneously childlike and old, the way the dead so often appear. The nails of his punishment have not just torn and bruised the skin, but have made the ligaments spasm. His ruined hands are frozen, clawed as they rest on what seems less an unravelling loincloth than an elaborately scrolled strip of parchment.
It’s agonising to look at. The artist wouldn’t have witnessed a crucifixion, but he certainly knew what a dead body looked like. His painting is brutally honest about the horrors men have wrought on man. He’s thought hard about how the beating of a nail through a foot that then has to bear the slumped weight of a body, will make the flesh swell around the wound. As my eye travels upwards from the sumptuous green pool of fabric around Christ’s head to the dramatic, self conscious pose of the woman whose skirt’s hem is his pillow, I think I know at last why her face is so sweet. It’s a punctuation mark, a relief, a moment to rest and catch the breath and hold onto life, before the restless journey continues down into grief again, to the pitiable and the broken.
When I paint, I always try to imagine the sensations that I’m depicting. This painter has imagined too, and his imagination has led him to a dark place. Whether you have great faith or no faith, the honesty of what he has imagined makes for stark viewing. This painting shows us the evidence of brutality and suffering. We recognise what it tells us, because brutality and suffering are as present in the world today, as they were when the Maestro de Virgo painted this unforgettable image in 1487.’